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US may adopt Fla. antiterror database

By Robert O'Harrow Jr., Washington Post, 8/6/2003

Police in Florida are creating a new counterterrorism database designed to give law enforcement agencies around the country a powerful new tool to analyze billions of records about both criminals and ordinary Americans.

Organizers said the system, the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, dubbed Matrix, enables investigators to find patterns and links among people and events faster than ever before, combining police records with commercially available collections of personal information about most American adults. It would let authorities, for example, instantly find the name and address of every brown-haired owner of a red Ford pickup within a 20-mile radius of a suspicious event.

The state-level program, aided by federal funding, is poised to expand across the nation at a time when Congress has been sharply critical of similar data-driven systems on the federal level, such as a Pentagon plan for global surveillance and an aviation passenger-screening system.

The Florida system is another example of the ongoing post-Sept. 11, 2001, debate about the proper balance between national security and individual privacy. Yesterday, Washington, D.C., and Homeland Security Department officials announced plans to launch a pilot law enforcement data-sharing network that will include Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Paul Cameron, president of Seisint Inc., the Boca Raton, Fla., company that developed the Matrix system and donated it to the state, said: ''It is exactly how law enforcement worked yesterday, except it's extraordinarily faster. In this age of risks that appear immediately, you have to be able to respond immediately.''

Some civil liberties groups fear Matrix will dramatically lower the threshold for government snooping.

''It's going to make fishing expeditions so much more convenient,'' said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit that monitors privacy issues.

''There's going to be a push to use it for many different kinds of purposes,'' Schwartz said.

The Justice Department has provided $4 million to expand the Matrix program nationally and will provide the computer network for information-sharing among the states, according to documents and interviews. The Department of Homeland Security has pledged $8 million, state officials said.

In some ways, Matrix resembles other data-driven counterterrorism initiatives that began after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Pentagon's controversial Terrorism Information Awareness program also sought to use personal data in new ways, but on a far larger scale. Started by retired Admiral John Poindexter, the idea was to create a global data-surveillance system that might detect hints of threats. Lawmakers sharply limited the program's funding several months ago, and now some intend to shut it down.

A Justice Department document from early this year describes Matrix as an effort ''to increase and enhance the exchange of sensitive terrorism and other criminal activity information between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.''

Florida officials say the system will be used only by authorized investigators under tight supervision.

This story ran on page A6 of the Boston Globe on 8/6/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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